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Archive for the ‘women’s novels’ Category


Ahdaf Soueif

Would Austen have read this book? she would have seen it as an improbable Radcliffe fantasy (especially the trunk and manuscripts) and gobbled it up, all the while writing harsh abrasive remarks about it to Cassandra who would at least listen ….

Friends and readers,

I first read Ahdaf Soueif’s The Map of Love some six years ago. I immediately recognized it as written in the Booker Prize mode: it has narratives within narratives, especially the past ones embedded into present day memories; deep subjectivity and reveries as the POV for long stretches; rich prose style. It seemed a cross between Ruth Jhabvala’s Heat and Dust (1984) and A. S. Byatt’s Possession (1990), Brontesque in its passionate outpourings, a George Eliot kind of heroine (Anna is called a Dorothea Brooke by her great-great grandaughter, Isabel Parkman), neo-Victorian, self-consciously Orientalist. Unlike many a more politics Booker Prize winner (in the event it was merely short-listed) Soueif is more than anti- or post-colonialist: she is avidly pro-Palestinian, rightly searingly critical of British, then US, then Israel behavior towards Egypt. She provides an alternative and accurate history of Egypt within this book, teaching the reader to understand events she (most readers I’ve met have been women) has been mislead, miseducated or silenced about. I had a hard time with it because the first heroine we meet, the older new reclusive Egyptian journalist Amal al-Ghamrawi, tells her story now in the third person, now in the first person, and reads and tells Anna’s story in a similar woven way. But if you keep at it, you will find yourself enjoying a passionate historical romance masterpiece.

I reread it for a paper I wrote on Charlotte Smith’s Ethelinde, or the Recluse of the Lake as they seemed uncannily similar, with both having epistolary situations (epistolarity — characters reading letters and journals where we are aware of the other reader) and story-telling first person story-telling set in side-by-side time frames. Smith’s Ethelinde and Soueif’s Map of Love are deeply recessive novels. The stories and characters that matter most are suspended, remain latent until we are well into the novel. Characters who blend into one another so it’s hard to keep them distinct. Prevailing moods are melancholic, ironic and nostalgic despite considerable alienation, deeply erotic, paradoxically all the more when the main character, a woman or feminized hero, has chosen celibacy. Events occur in widely disparate geographical places, leading to estrangements between characters, whom memory nonetheless connects and who act based the connection. Books will straddle languages. Contain some form of influential armed war (whether or not off-stage). Ending in a periphery, where the characters accept severely diminished hopes, tragic deaths and loss. A retreat into a refuge, internal exile. And above all migrancy.  The trunk motif is first found in Godwin’s Caleb Williams. Intense love stories.

These past three weeks I’ve reread and skimmed and dreamt over it — for the love scenes between Anna and her Egyptian lover evoke in my mind or are very like those of Jamie Fraser and Claire Beauchamp Randall Fraser in Outlander. At Politics and Prose Bookstore a 2 hour single session class was held on it this past Thursday. The room was full, and we had even a male reader. The teachers, Susan Willens and Virginia Newmyer, worked thoroughly to present historical and thematical and allusion background, then went over the story line section by section, and then we discussed characters themes POV politics settings moods. So here I am to share at least that part of that original paper concerning just Map of Love and offer a brief account of the politics of Soueif’s other novel, In the Eye of the Sun (set during the 1967 Israeli-Egyptian war), and at least mention her journalistic autobiographical account of the Arab Spring (2012), Cairo and her book of good essays, Mezzaterra (Fragments from the Common Ground) whose themes, attitudes and use of fragments as a way to speak remind me of Elena Ferrante’s La Frantumaglia.

Soueif’s core story is of Anna Winterbourne, found in a trunk filled with writing. Anna is a fin de siècle English widow of a minor English colonialist whose early death is attributed to his experience of colonial war with Kitchener’s forces on the Sudan. Anna travels to Egypt and marries a middle-aged Egyptian nationalist bachelor, Sharif Basha al Baroudi, who like by this marriage defies and cuts himself off from people. Anna’s trangressive history is held off, and surfaces as correspondence told by bits and pieces. Soueif’s Map of Love was for me a page-turner as I worked my way through parallel contemporary stories of Soueif’s direct surrogates, the older now reclusive Egyptian journalist, Amal al-Ghamrawi, who reads and tells Anna’s story, of Amal’s much younger American cousin, Isabel Parkman, who has an affair Omar, Amal’s middle-aged brother (Palestinian, modeled on Edward Said, but made directly active in the Arab-Israeli wars),to reach Anna’s “translational” texts (Hassan). The Map of Love ends when Shariff is assassinated and in the novel’s penultimate passage a paragraph remembering the ambiguous close of Charlotte Bronte’s Villette: Omar is thought to have been assassinated. Like Smith’s pro-active young woman-daughter Medora (from her last novel, The Young Philosopher), Isabel will not give up hope (516). Anna’s story is one of failure at the close: when Sharif is assassinated, she must return to England and bring up their daughter — shades of Outlander, but unlike Claire — Anna has not been to create some new social identity as a result of geographic and ethnic and marital dislocation.

The power of The Map of Love resides in its stretches of intense interiority. The reticence Soueif felt appropriate for Anna, with a sophisticated understanding of political relationships provide neo-Victorian texts (Tolstoy like), which enable Soueif to weave the colonialist and nationalist politics of Eygpt in naturally Anna’s main correspondent is Sir Charles Winterbourne, her dead husband’s now retired father. Soueif also (anticipating Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall) has Amal interweaves a distilled opulent neo-Victorian novel which Amal simply tells and moves between the third and first person. The Map of Love has been called a “translational novel,” with Sharif and Anna supposed talking to one another in French (though the words are English); when it finally drives down to fleeting naturalistic exchanges between the two. I was deeply moved, especially at a long scene of his dying, and her relief to have as an option a final choice of retreat for herself back to England, to educate her daughter by Shariff, paint, garden, and care for Sir Charles in his decline (505). The real mark of the post-colonial novel is migrancy, a kind of ricochet.


John Frederick Lewis (1804-76), The Harem — the painter who inspired Anna Winterbourne’s journey into Egypt after her husband’s return from there and death

Soueif’s novel achieves its political goal for an English novel simply weaving in nuanced accurate history of the earlier phases of the British take-over because much is unknown and rarely told from the perspective of the colonised subjects. We learn of the important Evelyn Baring, Earl of Cromer (1841-1917), a feminist Qasim Amin (1863-1908); the novel (like her In the Eye of the Sun on the Israeli-Eygpt wars) is meant to educate English-reading readers. Movement is temporal, back to Sharif’s father, still alive after decades of solitary confinement (political exclusion presented as religious), forward to 1900, when Anna’s eleven years in Eygpt begins, to her readers’ stories of Suez, 1952, Amal’s prime, in the 1960s, and Isabel’s now in New York, London, Cairo 1997. Soueif pokes fun at Booker Prize self-reflexive and cultural conventions, at the same time as she is open to “orientalist” texts. Shortly after her first husband’s death, Anna is drawn to return to Egypt when she is mesmerized (Map 45-46) by the Orientalist opulently colorful depictions of Egyptian street life, Islamic culture in schools, harems by Frederick Lewis (1779-1856) in her frequent trips to the South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria and Albert). Emily Weeks, an art historian has written an immense book on his work as cross-cultural. Map of Love is (Wylie Sypher like) is a kind of verbal equivalent of Lewis (Sypher). Like Smith, despite the repeated failure of group efforts, Soueif hopes for an internationalism, though it has to be said that the kind of cosmopolitanism found in this novel, has lately come under scrutiny as a disguised mask for neo-liberal western-style colonialism.

Surely she was also hoping someone would make a film and she could make money that way. Increase her visibility &c

In the class we spoke of the importance of the women’s friendships and relationships within the novel, for me this was especially true for Sharif’s sister, Layla, and Anna. As is common for me, I discovered a common view of the book by the women there was critical of some of the more unusual sexual couplings while I had no trouble. Anna’s granddaughter, Isabel’s older lover, Omar, has had an affair with her mother, Anna’s daughter, Jasmine. Some objected to the modern stories as thin, or unbelievable — no more so I felt than the Victorian one.

See this excellent review in the New York Times when the book first came out: Annette Kobak’s “Out of the Trunk.”. Also Emily Davis’s wonderful, “Romance as Political Aesthetic in Ahdaf Soueif’s The Map of Love, ” Genders 45 (28 July 2007).
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Soueif’s earlier and equally long novel, In the Eye of the Sun, reveals how self-consciously she has imitated the Booker Prize model — for this is not at all pastiche, but very contemporary in language and feel. Soueif mentions Tolstoy as her master, and here she is retelling what she suggests is the crucial war of the century, and how the betrayal of Egypt (its defeat) was engineered with Britain’s help, and fostered by some of the elite of Egypt too. While I can see that Map of Love is far more polished, more somehow artful, In the eye is the more living book. It is also like Tolstoy meaning to be accurate and meaning to inform her reader — as if she were a journalist

What Soueif shows is the Egyptian authorities deliberately allowed Israel to strike first in that war and so gave it the opportunity to destroy the Egyptian air force. Having wiped that out, it was relatively easy for Israel to win the war. Soueif indicts the incompetence, rivalries between different Egyptian people in power but what is striking to this reader is how she is careful to include someone saying to someone else, the Israeli planes are on their way a day before June 6th; that is June 5th. I remember how nervous the other character became, fearful that if Egypt hits first, Egypt will be the aggressor, blamed, and then the US will outright attack Egypt. Now I recall how the US has not been in the habit of attacking other countries along side Israel whom Israel wants to destroy in some way. We give them billions, and share spying information but we don’t overtly attack. Now we are doing the same for Saudi Arabia in Yemen.

Back to In the Eye of the Sun, this idea that Egypt dare not defend itself from Israel’s surprise attack because of fear of US retaliation emerges as false since what happens is the surprise attack not only pulverizes Egypt but allows the rest of Egypt’s army to suffer horrendous casualties. Whole units wiped out. It is really implied this is collusion of some sort — could it be that those in authority were thought to want a capitalist order to replace Nassar’s open socialism — remember he nationalized or wanted to nationalize the Suez canal. He was replaced by Sadat a pro-US person (pro-capitalist).

The book has a good subjective heroine’s plot. One heroine’s half-ass husband who can do no real harm gets involved in quiet revolutionary activities and is imprisoned, tortured, psychologically and economically destroyed for life: Deena’s husband, Nur-ed-Din. Several of the women die of too many childbirths; they are shown to be very much bullied by their husbands, they dare not refuse sex and sex means children. Although brief, very good:  Marilyn Booth on In the Eye of the Sun, in World Literature Today 68:1 (1994):204-5.

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To conclude, I admit I was chuffed when I found the two teachers and I were agreed in some deep ways: they loved the account of the long imprisoned father of Sharif, his melancholy despair and his (religious) attitude towards existence that enabled him to hang on in solitary for so long and endure a life-in-death. I liked some similar characters and melancholy piquant details in her Eye of the Sun, e.g., Aysa’s father loses his library; it has to be sold. It is in 1979 that Deena writes letter detailing what was done to her husband (terrible things); that was the last year that Jim and I were together in NYC and found we must move to Virginia.

Other of her novels I’d like to read: The Sandpiper; other of her essays, This is not a Border. I loved this essay: “The Politics of Desire in the Writings of Ahdaf Soueif” by Joseph Massad in Journal of Palestine Studies, 28:4 (Summer, 1999): 74-90

Ellen

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I like the photo of her on this cover; the book written by her over the period she was also writing The Bull Calves


Carradale House, Kintyre, Scotland — bought by Mitchison by the time of WW2 and her home thereafter

Would Jane Austen have known of this incident, oh yes, and probably read Johnson and Boswell’s twin tours of the Hebrides; did she ever mention it, no; but she did mention and read avidly a number of Scots writers who did: Scott (Waverley), Anne Grant (1802 poem, The Highlanders) among them.

Friends and readers,

The last week or so I’ve been working towards producing a first draft of a paper for a coming 18th century regional conference, whose working title is “At this Crossroads of my Life: Culloden and its aftermath.” I read Naomi Mitchison’s novel about this matter where inside two days characters confront central crossroads of their lives successfully (and finished Jenni Calder’s splendid biography of her, The Nine Lives of Naomi Mitchison, which I recommend) and I re-saw a 1994 movie of the famous massacre, said to be much influenced, almost an imitation of Patrick Watkins’s classic 1965 pseudo-documentary, Culloden, and realized for the first time its individual story’s dramaturgy creates a literal crossroads where several beautifully individualized characters experience ironic destruction. The novel first:

Naomi Mitchison’s impressive novel, The Bull Calves, occurs over 2 days, June 16th to 17th, about 2 years after Culloden, 1747, on a family estate, Gleneagles, in rural Scotland somewhere between Edinburgh and Perth. It brings together members of the Haldane family, most of them now Whigs, and pro-Hanoverian, but much conflicted over its past chequered history of complex allegiances to Tory Jacobitism. At the center of the novel is Kirstie Haldane, a woman in her late 40s, previously miserably wed for many years to an abusive husband, and Black William of Borlum, a forward looking (Whiggish) ex-Jacobite, whose father died in prison after fighting in 1715, and who himself spent many years in exiled, wandering in America. William and Kirstie are recently wed, and burdened with secrets; she, that when her husband died, she was accused of murdering him through witchcraft; he, that he was also married for several years to an Indian woman, assimilated to her tribe until their bouts of barbaric violence so alienated him, he fled back to Scotland.

The story (explaining the title of the book) is concerns poisoned relationships. William is distrusted by Kirstie’s family, his family past, a severe disadvantage to them. Several aggressive young male Haldanes, instigated by another Jacobite, Lachlan MacIntosh of Kyllachy, who, jealous of Kirstie’s love and the powerful men of this now Whig family, accuses William of treachery in harboring yet a third Jacobite wanted for arrest in the house’s attic. In this book the past is in the present; conflicted histories, long held enmities, adversarial personalities, and immediate close relationships (Kirstie to her brothers, her uncle, her niece, and nephews) and responsive behaviors and talk are tightly knotted into a densely observed cultural and social environment. What is remarkable is how inward intimate experience is the medium of the book out of which external events are dramatized through memories. The first quarter of the book consists of Kirstie telling her niece, Catherine, of her traumatic previous life in the context of the present events of a family feast and daily life. The whole of William’s time in America is told by him to her lawyer brother as remembered flashback; Mitchison’s long notes form a third instrinsic part of the novel, and the resolution of the novel in favor of compromises and modernity recall Walter Scott. Her idea is mutual loyalty and trust ought to make people achieve together and know content, something they could not do separately.

I found myself fully absorbed by the intensities of the conflicts, the possibility dangerous outcomes (prison, transportation, more exile), a sense of their feelings, and was anxious over what would happen as our chief couple seeks to invent or continue their new life and re-formed identities. The characters seek to escape loneliness by finding sympathy in what they need to tell; and at the end of each part harmonies shape the action: dancing, feasting, going to bed. The book also felt drenched in layers of Scottish culture, mythical, supernatural, and uses Jungian archetypal theories so William needs the Kirstie’s humane inner self (her anima) and she needs his strength and force (his animus).

It is an analysis of the way Jacobitism poisoned the lives of those who got involved at the same time as it shows why they did so: the movement appealed to the underdog, the exploited and powerless, those who could not join in on the new capitalism and forms of power emerging in the 18th century. She defines Jacobitism complexly through a socialist perspective (you must read the book) and brilliantly in her notes and in the novel’s story. We experience how this complicated movement against Whig Hanoverian regime (capitalist lairds) plays out in real life circumstances then and now. Her use of language, a contemporary idiom mixed with a lyrical interplay of Scots 18th century dialect is also part of the book’s enjoyment.

It was written over the five years of Mitchison’s stay in a more remote part of Scotland during World War Two, managing a household, serving a community as its chatelaine; and she uses the Scottish defeat and struggles to express what she was feeling as the dreadful and later more hopeful end to the conflict. She was a Haldane, her brother, the famous JBS Haldane, and a number of the characters are partly modeled on people she knew and loved.  So the book resembles Daphne DuMaurier’s The King’s General, also written over the years of the war she spent managing a family estate in Cornwall, where a story of the English civil war making heavy use of real historical figures and particulars enabled her to come to terms with and express her anguish and personal experiences; also Iris Origo’s War in Val d’Orchia, Susan Sontag’s 1993 Volcano Lover, while mostly set in the 18th century, also occurs a auction room in 1943. It’s not just women who turned to historical fiction: Winston Graham’s Ross Poldark and Demelza are the products of his five years as a coastguard in Cornwall. Diana Wallace says in her book on women’s historical fiction and romance, that in the 1930s and 40s women wrote books about the repeatedly defeated; they were also seeking reconciliation, commitment to compassion and reasoned progress in the face of nightmare. You can call all of these but Ross Poldark heroine’s texts.

Then this unexpectedly poignant absorbing fine film.


Brian Blessed as Major Eliot in Chasing the Deer

Chasing the Deer may be said to be an improvement on Watkins’s film. The line is from a stanza by Burns:

“My heart’s in the Highlands, my heart is not here,
My heart’s in the Highlands, a-chasing the deer;
Chasing the wild-deer, and following the roe,
My heart’s in the Highlands, wherever I go.”

The thrust of the film is to create intense sympathy for the highlanders caught up in this war. The Scottish countryside is photographed with heart-aching beauty, the colors lovely, lots of sparkling water, indigenous plant-life, the usual stags and deer, small animals everywhere. The music by John Wetton (and others) is original and written for the film, with much bagpipe feel. As with Watkins many of the people were not professional actors at all; they were the people crowdsourced to provide adequate funds. The film is done with considerable integrity, nothing over-flashy, nothing ratcheted up for melodrama or sexual scene’s sake.

It is as anti-war (showing the brutality and horror of war) as Watkins’s film but the overall effect is to project the death and a mourning for a traditional Scottish way of life, however impoverished. The film-makers convey the inner experience of the calamites inflicted on immediately a few thousand men and then long range their families and homes all around them. The public story is conveyed by epitomizing scenes of leading generals, famous people discussing where they are just now. The film-makers present Prince Charles Edward (Dominique Carrara) as someone who is foreigner, there without resources or connections, without any initial understanding of the desperate conditions and lack of manpower and wealth in a group of people he has chosen to base a desperate bid for his family’s power on. Cumberland (Dominic Borelli) is made to seem yet worse: a dense cold fat bully understandably determined to make sure no more of these nuisance uprisings will happen again. We see the irrational glorification of the Prince by the crowds and his incompetence; the story of Murray’s inability to avoid the final disaster is doe full justice to and the horrors wreaked on the losers.

I also find the film also valuable for the human story it tells, which suggests all the people involved could be switched to the other side, so the action is senseless from the point of view of those who die or whose way of life is destroyed. For this we follow the story of Alistair Campell (Matthew Zajac) who wants nothing to do with wars, but is driven to go right the war as a Jacobite because his son, Euan (Lewis Rae) is snatched by a group of Jacobites, and he is told the boy has been put in prison and will be kept there or killed (for shooting someone) and only released if his father fights with them. Euan is re-captured by a group of Hanoverian soldiers, made a dummmer boy, and comes to the attention to a Major Eliot (Brian Blessed) still grieving over his only son’s death in India (so Eliot had taken the boy to the colonies as part of his career), who takes Euan as a servant and son and attempt to teach and protect him insofar as this is possible.

We also see the women isolated, losing their men one by one – sometimes carelessly killed. Euan has impregnated a girl before he left; his mother Morag (Carolyn Konrad) when she discoveres her son is taken by the Hanoverians attempts to find her husband to tell him so he will return home. She cannot and it is too late. In the Shakespearean scene I referred to Euvan is cut down early on at Culloden; as he falls Alistair glimpses him and on the Hanoverian side; the father runs to the son as the son lies dying unaware his father is looking down on him; Eliot, not far off, mistakes Alistair for the murderer, so murders Alistair and carries the boy away in his arms in a state of raging grief. The last scene is of the three woman and a new baby in the house, hugging in a circle, waiting for their home possibly to be destroyed.


On the march from Inverness (I apologize for my inability to block out the constant ad logo, an irritant while watching movies played on TV stations nowadays)

I thought of a line from the serial drama Outlander (I don’t know if it’s in the book): what kind of people do we become and how do we remain ourselves even when we think all is lost ….

Ellen

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The view from the cliffs of Walton-On-The-Naze, Essex from 27.10, Brindle, Sanditon Film-Of-The-Play (thanks to Chris Brindle for supplying it [Olympus Digital Camera]


Joanna Harker and Jennifer Ehle as Jane and Elizabeth, the central pair of the novel brought out beautifully by so many scenes between the sisters in Davies’s 1995 P&P


Sidney Parker (Theo James) and Charlotte Heywood (Rose Williams) bypassing one another in Davies’s Sanditon (Part 2)

Dear friends and readers,

A blog on Austen herself is long overdue, so by way of getting back to her texts, I offer tonight two videos on or of film adaptations.


Miss Bingley claims a dance from Darcy at an assembly ball (1940 MGM P&P)


Elizabeth Garvie as Elizabeth (1979 P&P, Fay Weldon)

Over on Janeites@groups.io, Nancy Mayer sent the URL to this interesting (not overlong at all) video: “Book vs. Movie: Pride and Prejudice in Film & TV (1940, 1980, 1995, 2005)” or “Pride and Prejudice by the Book:”

I find it an an excellent video review. It’s not original in approach but each of the four perspectives, and the points made are accurate and as a composition, the whole makes sense. Comparing these four makes sense too because they are (as the narrators says) of the faithful (heritage it’s called sometimes) approach. What makes the video especially good, gives it some distinction is the choice of shots, the scenes and dialogues chosen, and how they are put together. The video-makers had to have watched all movies four over and over again, made very careful slices, and then spent a long time putting together juxtapositions and montages. The one drawback is many of the dialogues from the movies in the clips, are too shortened, not enough of the conversation cited. For example, in Joe Wright’s 2005 P&P, when Claudie Blakeley as Charlotte accusingly says to Elizabeth, before telling Elizabeth of her decision to marry Mr Collins, “don’t you judge” (a few words to this effect), the eloquent speech just afterwards would have brought out not just the quality of the modernization of the language of this one, but the in-depth interpretation offered by the script-writer Deborah Moggach, with some help from Emma Thompson


The incandescent Lawrentian erotic close of Joe Wright’s 2005 P&P, Keira Knightley and Matthew MacFayden as Elizabeth and Darcy (tacked onto the American version)

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Sanditon is now airing on ITV, will in January 2020 be shown on PBS, and the creator, script-writer, Andrew Davies, has a new and freer adaptation of Austen than he’s done before. After watching several of his adaptations over the 2 decades from 1990, we can see how far he has come (going with the era he’s developing a film for) from his first adaptation – he has now “done” P&P, Emma, S&S and Northanger Abbey — all of these very good in their Davies way, a re-vision partly from a male point of view. I note he has said no more and think to myself he is no fan of Mansfield Park and is avoiding the dark melancholy and unfinished state of Persuasion (captured very well in 2007, directed by Adrian Shergold, written by Simon Burke)


Two stills from Andrew Davies’ Sanditon, the first episode, the first glimpses of the place and beach; the second POV Charlotte Heywood (Rose Williams) and Tom Parker (Kris Marshall)

For some first impressions of the Part 1 Sanditon, and now Part 2

The second video, I offer by contrast: the cabaret style YouTube of the musical Sanditon as it played cabaret style in London this past late July.

I’ve written too many blog-reviews and commentaries on Chris Brindle’s filmed play of Sanditon (heritage style the faithful type), and a couple of the songs, so accompany this one just by a photograph of the English shoreline down south, here unspoilt (uncommercialized)

Here is a still I’ve not put up yet of Charlotte Heywood in comic anguish:


Act I of Brindle’s Sanditon — Amy Burrows as Charlotte Heywood


Part 2 of Davies’s Sanditon — Rose Williams as Charlotte emerging from bathing in English channel

A closing thought: it seems to me that a remarkable variety of types of films (genre, or heritage/appropriation), points of view, film techniques have been used across Austen’s corpus, testifying to how capable the books are of suggesting lines of approach for each era they have been read in.

Ellen

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Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin) demands that Gerald Maretti, the busdriver (Mark Ruffalo) confess he is guilty (Lonergan’s 2011 Margaret)


Clare (Aisling Franciosi) and Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) hiding from Officer Hawkins while she seeks Hawkins out (Jennifer Kent’s 2018 The Nightingale)

As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods, They kill us for their sport – a line spoken by an English teacher (Matthew Broderick) which he explicates as meaning infinite, varied, and unjust is human suffering …. (Margaret)

Gentle readers,

In this blog I suggest that in recent 21st century women’s films the old humiliation, self-berating girl learns a lesson scene is gone, but it is replaced by the demand for confrontation where the result is counterproductive frustration and anger. Rarely is mutual understanding or acceptance sought, much less reached, in the way you can find in earlier books from Austen through Eliot. I ask why this is; why this changeover, where this insistent demand demand as the crucial climactic scene comes from, how does it function?

This week I saw two remarkably powerful, complex and intelligent women’s films, both of which I urge you to go see — or more probably rent from Netflix, or stream into your computer. Don’t miss them.

To find words to capture and epitomize the achievement and absorption you will experience as you watch Lonergan’s long Margaret, one has to begin with how like a novel it is, how the characters come across as having real human depths. Lonergan’s ability to capture and convey a sense of life happening from and through so many people, the streets and skyline of New York City, seems uncanny: his use of a cinematographer moves from documentary style, to meditate lyricism, to staged dramatic encounters, group scenes, self-reflexive theater and school room scenes; these countless moments form the background to a “coming of age” story. His script is believable and yet subtly meaningful, suggestive all the time. The initiating event: Lisa Cohen (our “Margaret”) partly causes and is close witness to the killing of a woman, a dismembering of her (her leg is dissevered from her body) by a bus going through a red light as she was walking without looking around her, straight ahead. Lisa distracted the bus-driver by half-flirting with him to get his attention and get him to tell her where he bought his cowboy hat.


Lisa running alongside the bus

What happens is over the course of the movie, Lisa realizes that nothing has been done to redress the loss of life, to make clear a horrific event has occurred, a deep injustice to the woman who died. Unsure of herself, and afraid from what her mother, Joan [J. Smith-Cameron) warns (she could cause the driver to lose his job), she says the light was green when he drove through. We see it was red, but the truth is she cannot have clearly seen the light because her focus was the driver,  and the moving huge bus was in the way. She comes to the conclusion that life is going on just as if this did not happen, except for the woman’s grieving friend, Emily (Jeannie Berlin) who organizes a memorial service, which Lisa attends. She thin ks that nothing was done to somehow register this event because she, Lisa, lied about that light.

All around her much life happens: her mother is in a play, begins an affair with a wealthy Columbian businessman, Ramon (Jean Reno), Lisa herself de-virginalizes herself by inviting a high school boy, Paul (Kieran Culkin) to her house, into her bed, has a relationship with another boy, Darren (John Gallager) where he is very hurt; she and her mother fight (she is obnoxious to her mother), her father and she talk on the phone (he lives in California with another woman and has invited her to come horseback riding), school classes go on (we see how argumentative, aggressive, uncooperative she is), she almost develops a friendship with Emily. But like most relationships in the film, this pair of people never really listen to or understand one another’s point of view (though we the viewer are invited to). One of the many remarkably suggestive brilliant moments show Joan coming out of a bathroom, her chest naked as she finds herself having to go to bed with Ramon when she is not sure she likes him. A fleeting few seconds conveys so much.


Emily and her mother in typical side-by-side moments but without much communication (Margaret)

Jim Emerson on Roger Ebert’s site writes the best review of Margaret, the most generous, and it is her who thinks to print one of those many scenes where the story is not going forward, exactly, one of several mother-daughter fights: Lisa has begun to talk of opera as Ramon is taking her to Norma and asks Margaret if she would like to accompany them:

LISA: I don’t like that kind of singing.
JOAN But you like classical music.
LISA Yes. That’s true. But I don’t like opera singing.
JOAN But when have you —
LISA It’s like their entire reason for existing is to prove how loud they can be. I don’t really find that very interesting.
JOAN Yeah… I know what you mean. I don’t like that really loud opera singing either. But it’s not all like that… You like “The Magic Flute”…
LISA OK, I guess I’m wrong. I guess I do like opera singing. I just didn’t realize it.
JOAN What is the matter with you?
LISA Why are you pushing this? I don’t want to go to the opera!
JOAN Yes! OK! It’s called an invitation. I’m not pushing anything. All you have to say is “No thanks!”
LISA I did! And then you were like, “Why not?” So I told you, and then you like, started debating me, like you assume I’ve never thought this through for myself — which I really have. Many times!
JOAN OK, well, that was a really contemptuous assumption on my part. I don’t actually like opera that much myself, but I’m trying to expand my mind… Maybe that’s wrong. I’m sorry..


Matthew Broderick as the English teacher

Some of the most important scenes occur in the English classroom. Among other topics the students discuss the meaning of King Lear, and it’s evident the discussion is meant to be applied to the film. Here the Hopkins’ poem to Margaret (“Spring and Fall”), which gives the film its title, is read aloud.

Márgarét, áre you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.


Margaret high on “weed” with her friend, not going to class, the English male teacher’s POV

The compelling thrust of the plot-design seems at first Lisa’s desire to soothe her conscience by telling the truth. When the adults and authorities recognize she lied, & the new evidence is given in, she is told that still the busdriver will carry on driving the bus, because the verdict is the death was an accident, & there was no criminality involved. This is not enough for her. What she wants is to confront the bus-driver and wrench out of him an admission he is guilty, that together they killed the woman.

The center of the film in time and structure is her visit to this man’s house and demand he confess to her. A confrontation. He won’t of course — he fears losing his job, and he begins to explain to her how this accident happened from his stance. She doesn’t realize a bus is a physical object hurtling through space and it was already too late for him to brake as he was going through the light just turned red. Of course he should have paid no attention to Lisa, and put his brakes on much earlier; he implies this was already past doing, and repeats it was an accident. As she gets more excited and angry, he begins to sense that she is out to get him — and by the end of the film she couches her demand in confronting others that she wants him fired, arrested, punished. But no one will do this.


With Emily, Lisa gets advice from a lawyer to hire another lawyer

What the refusal of this guy leads her to do is hire a lawyer to sue someone. She discovers the only “compensation” the law will offer is money for “damages” (or loss) done to a relative. The MTA she is told more than once is in a labor dispute with the union, and it is they who would be sued. She accuses the police of insufficiently interrogating the (now) unfortunate bus-driver. The relative hardly knew the woman but contacted, and having visited NYC, at the end she is demanding the $350,000 the MTA offers to settle out of court — and over the phone seems to feel that it would be unfair or unjust for the driver to lose his job. There are shots of Maretti looking as scared as she, even towards he end (a fleeting still of his second interrogation.

The most convenient thing to do is done: no one is declared guilty. No one ever says aloud the truth that the woman herself wasn’t looking carefully and alertly where she was going herself: we are told she had lost a 12 year old daughter to leukemia, and she calls for this child as she dies. Lisa becomes hysterical, angry, over-reacts with emotionalism as if she is grieving for this woman she never knew, with more and more strident demands the bus-driver be punished.

I did become frustrated myself until near the end of the film Lisa suddenly bursts out that she (not the bus-driver) killed this woman by her behavior. It was good to know she recognized her error, but beyond that all we see is a kind of controlled chaos. That recognition does not improve her behavior: she is as frivolous and obtuse as ever at times: she gets back at the teacher, Mr Aaron, she has seduced, by telling him she had an abortion. . A central theme, as David Edelstein of NPR writes, of the movie is no one fully connects ever.


Here we see Margaret deliberately starting a quest for Mr Aaron (the math teacher, played by Matt Demon) where she goes back to his sublet, and overtly seduces him — then when she tells him before another person, if she had an abortion, it is either he, Paul or maybe Darren who is the father, all she is doing is hurting or worrying him. How much this is a male point of view is worth considering, sometimes Margaret is treated as if she were an aggressive young man ….

There is no closure. The film ends with mother and daughter at the opera watching (a close-up of) Renee Fleming looking awful in over-heavy make-up and ludicrously lavish decorated gown singing expertly, and then mother-and-daughter crying and falling into one another’s arms. The music itself has so stirred them in their fraught lives.

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Clare


and Aidan from early in film

I would not have noticed the centrality of the scene where Margaret confronts the busdriver had I not the next day gone to see The Nightingale. This is a harrowing tale where we see what can be done to inflict pain, misery, humiliation, rape, beating, death (whatever) when a group of people are deprived all rights (convicts, aborigines) and subject to the will of a few men who are not held accountable to anyone else. Read Robert Hughes’s great and crucial book, The Fatal Shore, about the founding of Australia through convict transportation and settler colonialism (with ethnic cleansing too). The villain, Hawkins (Sam Claflin) begins by refusing to give Clare her earned ticket of leave, raping her nightly, abusing her. When her husband, Aiden (Michael Sheasby) also an Irish ex-convict, protests, Hawkins brings his man to their hut to beat them, gang-rape her; and when the baby begins to cry loudly, Hawkins bullies a soldier into killing the child.


Hawkins confronting Billy

Hawkins has been told he will not be promoted and leaves the camp for Launeston with five men to try to negotiate himself into a captaincy. At the same time Clare, in a state of stunned grief, after asking others to bury her husband and child, takes the husband’s horse and rides after him. She is persuaded to enlist an aborigine, Billy, to lead her to the town; without him she would die in the bush.

What emerges is a quest of the two parties across a deadly wasteland, where meeting one another is the greatest risk. We see another woman, aborigine, grabbed, raped, forced to leave her child to die by Hawkins and his vicious or obedient men. Clare has lied to Billy and told him she is seeking her husband in Launceston but gradually he learns she has lost her baby, the husband is dead, and her goal is to kill Hawkins — far from avoiding this pack of killers, she is trying to reach them. As with Margaret, other incidents happen, we see aborigine people living, we see convict gangs in chains, a rare white old man gives our pair of friends shelter and food, Billy performs rituals, helps Margaret repress her milk with some concoction, but the compelling thrust of the plot-design is her stubborn determined attempt to reach those who killed her beloveds. By this time too Hawkins has become in behavior a sadistic psychopathic killer, killing people on whims, including the elderly aborigine man who is his guide, and who is Billy’s uncle — they come from the same village.


A passing scene of a house burned down — a war between the aborigines and the colonialists is said to be going on

What happens is ironically the man who killed her baby because he was forced to is left behind. When she comes upon him, and his apology is the morally imbecilic defense the baby was noisy, she begins frantically to stab him to death, beats him with the gun, takes an ax to him until her rage is gone. What neither she nor Billy realize is when they do finally have a chance to shoot the captain, she will now hesitate, and that gives Hawkins his chance to escape, get to town, and then, if he can, blacken her and turn her back to becoming a “convict whore” and simply kill Billy. Aborigines throughout are shot the way cats are said to have been shot in 18th century Europe.

Nonetheless, she again returns to her aggression and now drives Billy with a gun to carry on to Launceston, and then what does she do? at great risk to herself, to Billy (with whom she has now formed a touching friendship), she goes to the tavern where the captain is sitting with all the men, and just like Lisa before the bus-driver, she demands a confession of guilt, an admission he has done horrific wrong. Hawkins scorns her; we can see he is worried that the commanding officer is beginning to suspect him of evil-doing but before Hawkins can try to turn the situation around, she repeats her claim, says what he did, and flees back to Billy in hiding, and the back to the bush.

The striking thing is she appears gratified at having had the confrontation itself — though it is so unsatisfactory and dangerous — from the other white unenslaved, unconvicted people in the town.

The movie is a tragedy; Billy now understanding what has happened fully, and knowing Hawkins murdered his uncle, enacts another ritual, puts on war paint and goes to town and himself with a spear, using the technique of surprise, murders Hawkins and Hawkins’s cruel sidekick, but not before Billy is shot through the stomach. the last we see of Billy he is sitting looking out at the river as he dies; nearby him Clare stands by her horse. She seems to have no hope of any decent life unless she were somehow to return to Ireland.

The film is also extremely brutal, with the only character (besides the old man) seemingly capable of tenderness, caring for others, & real friendliness Billy.

Both films have received strong praise, if in both cases there is an accompanying chorus of doubt. Kent is too violent; Lonergan too self-indulgent and ruined his film’s chances for distribution by fighting with the studio. Ann Hornaday in the Washington Post finds the Nightingale explores and questions its genre. What is not noticed is this central plot-design. Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian finds the movie provocative and brilliant, a depiction of today’s life. What higher accolade than an essay in he latest issue of PMLA: Alicia Mireles Christoff, Margaret and The Victorians, 134:3 (May 2019):507-23.  Christoff argues that Margaret (this is why the title) is another Victorian afterlife film; it is finally dissatisfying because it is still mostly relying on Victorian film pleasures instead of seeking a new film aesthetic and patterns.

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Brianna (Sophie Skelton) walking along just after she is raped (Outlander Season 4, Episode 10)

And now I must confess that I noticed this new confrontation pattern in women’s movies recently because I’ve also been puzzled by just this demand for confrontation by wronged heroines in several other period and high quality video drama when the central characters are women, or the films are by women, or the expected audience is majority women. The Nightingale has a woman script-writer, director, and producers, and its central presence is Clare, its her POV except in a few places where it’s Billy watching for her. Margaret is a feminine counterpart to Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea; it is about a young girl-woman growing up, learning painfully her own insignificance. The secondary relationship is with her mother, a pattern seen in woman’s literature and movies. The difference is these more “pop” films make the confrontation explicitly central — and the anger, frustration, resentment.

However many men are writing, directing, producing the video adaptations of Outlander, many key roles of writer, director and other central functions (costume design, set) and the author herself are all women. Brianna (Sophia Skelton) is raped and possibly impregnated by a wantonly cruel criminal type-pirate, Stephen Bonnet (Ed Speleers) in the fourth season. When she is finally brought to safety at her aunt Jocasta’s to have her baby, I was startled when Brianna not only at the risk of everyone else (a friend in jail, another friend who is being hunted down as a regulator [tax-avoider] and trouble-maker), and herself not only demands but is taken to the jail to do what? confront her rapist (now in chains) and demand he confess his guilt, admit to her he has done wrong and to her. He won’t of course.


Bonnet listening to Brianna’s demands

This time (Bonnet being a witty man), laughs at her, mocks her stance, parodies a rueful apology. She falls to scolding, and then the story takes a worse dive when he shows an interest in the coming baby and Brianna seems to think he has some right to. All is interrupted by the attempt of other friends to free those in the jail by throwing a fire-bomb in. They all escape, just, with their lives


Demelza remaining angry

But the central scene is this demand – and Brianna made this so explicit, and uselessly & causing risk to all, she seemed over-the-top.  What gratification could she imagine herself to get from this man? Even three swallows do not a summer make, so more briefly now: one reason Horsfield’s Demelza’s first response to Ross when he returns from bedding Elizabeth all night (after begging him not to go that night) is to slap him in the face so hard he falls to the ground.  (Brianna also slaps people : she is again explicit, crying out that no one has more right than she to be angry). Then utterly unlike Graham’s book/Demelza, Horsfield’s heroine turns snide, sarcastic, making nasty comments, with her face tight and resentful, each time she sees Ross. Yes he raped Elizabeth, but how is demanding that he confess his guilt, and repeatedly acknowledge he has wronged her help matters? She seeks revenge by going to bed with Captain MacNeil, but when she feels she cannot, she still seems incapable of reaching a mutual understanding by listening to him or talking herself openly of her hurt; instead she openly refuses to forgive when he does apologize and behaves embarrassingly abjectly (Poldark, 2017, the third season). She says all she wants is for him to say the truth, but the truth is complicated and that she does not concede at all.

Needless to demonstrate, June-Offred (Elizabeth Moss) of Handmaid’s Tale fame hungers for confrontation, and sometimes gets it — violently.


Elizabeth (Jennifer Ehle) and Darcy (Colin Firth) walking and talking together just as he proposes (1995 Pride and Prejudice, scripted Andrew Davies)

I thought back to Austen and to the woman writers of the 18th through 20th century and women’s films of the 20th century. I rue the repeated use of the humiliation scene (it’s there is Austen too) in films where the heroine either in front of others, or herself and the audience admits she has been all wrong, scourges or berates herself, vows to do better, but the “girl learns a lesson” is far more varied in the books.

As to confrontation, in Sense and Sensibility Austen’s Marianne is pulled away from Willoughby. Elinor worries about she and Marianne being shamed in public. Marianne likes to hear she was not altogether wrong in her judgement of him, but from afar. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth never writes back to Darcy. She reflects constantly about his letter, over and over, but she has no need to confront him when they finally meet. At the end of the novel, they discuss their relationship and attempt to come to terms with one another. So too in Persuasion Anne Eliot and Captain Wentworth. In Emma Mr Knightley confronts Emma after she insults Miss Bates and it does have an effect — he says he has a need to but he is not asking for a confession or admission of guilt. He needs none. He is shaming her. And Emma becomes the young woman who has learnt a lesson.

Why do these 21st century women need this explicit admission of guilt or confession to them, why do they seek a mostly frustrating, often counterproductive, rarely useful confrontation? The counter-examples in Austen prompt me to realize how rarely the couples drive towards mutual explanation. When in the Poldark books Ross and Demelza try to explain their points of view usually towards or in the last chapter, what happens is they get angrier, and reconciliation comes from admitting there is a gender fault-line here, from exhaustion, and real need and love of one another and a mutual resolve to carry on with forgiveness quietly.

One couple do successfully explain themselves in these 21st century films: Jamie and Claire Fraser.  I’ve come across two reviews of these programs which make this their central argument for why they like Outlander, and why the love story and frank graphic sex are a good part of the shows – because before they have sex they have a mutual explanation, which sometimes begins as a shouting match but eventually they are listening and have recognized & acknowledged one another’s point of view as understandable. Before proceeding to a gratifying & tender sexual encounter …

In Austen, in Elizabeth Gaskell, in George Eliot, in other women authors I particularly like such scenes of reconciliation and acceptance come from more than kindness: it’s a belief in the ability of someone to care for someone else, to listen to them, and to respect (in Austen’s language, esteem) them without having to inflict on the good and mixed nature characters all around them more risk and pain.


This is called a mood piece from Margaret: but it is Margaret walking along in a hard kind of isolation

Ellen

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Latest version of Little Women opens with  a deeply intimate-feeling scene of adolescent girls in their bedroom privacy trimming and curling the long hair of one of them (2017 BBC, scripted Heidi Thomas, directed Vanessa Caswell)


A version of this iconic scene, the four girls circled around the mother reading aloud the letter from the father away in the army Christmas time, is what usually opens the movie (this from the first 1931 George Cukor film)

Cut off from attention, marginalized or labeled as it has been into a “sentimental for-girls classic (in one of her chapters she shows how consistently teachers choose boys’ or apparently gender-neutral books for classroom texts), Little Women has still achieved remarkable longevity, respect, consistent readership (if most of the time not acknowledged by men) by mature women too …

Friends and readers,

It’s no wonder I feel as if I’ve been reading a good deal of Anne Boyd Rioux lately: I have! I did not mean to read her study of four 19th century American women novelists together with her study of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (by which throughout this blog I also mean Good Wives), but I ended doing so when TrollopeandHisContemporaries@groups.io decided to read this book. I didn’t mind; Meg Jo Beth Amy seemed an extension, a particular case in point of the lines of thought of Writing for Immortality.


This is the outside of the edition of the book with just these illustrations that I read and gazed upon for hours at age 10-11

While the book is presented as another of a recent favored genre, the biography-of-a-book as autobiography of this author (remember Michael Gorra’s masterpiece study of James and The Portrait of a Lady; think Rebecca Mead on Eliot and Middlemarch), it is more a defense of the book, something neither Gorra or Mead could possibly find necessary. Rioux argues for the depth, maturity of understanding conveyed, and original creativity in Alcott’s Little Women, and for including it in the curriculum of junior high school good books for both boys and girls, and in women’s studies in college. Beyond telling how the book emerged from Louisa May Alcott as an individual and in the context of her life and era, of its extensive and profound influence on countless people, about the stage, film and post-text legacy, and offering an array of interconnected readings, and of course retelling her own and her daughter’s experiences with this book, Rioux goes about to seek and finds very rare even today another or other books dramatizing and exploring problems experienced by adolescent girls and young women. If it were that a woman’s powerful book of genius could receive the kind of serious on-going attention and respect that such books by men regularly do, it would be recognized that Little Women changed the expectations we come to great children and young adult literature with.

Cut off from attention, marginalized or labeled as it has been into a “sentimental for-girls classic (in one of her chapters she shows how consistently teachers choose boys’ or apparently gender-neutral books for classroom texts), Little Women has still achieved remarkable longevity, respect, consistent readership (if most of the time not acknowledged by men). One of her chapters (longish, the fifth) is simply a recounting of many famous people’s (mostly women’s) praise and precious memories of reading (and nowadays), seeing, acting it out. I admit that by the time I got half-way through that I was relieved to be told Hilary Mantel “hated” it, Camilla Paglia saw it as “poison,” and Edith Wharton “avoided” it. I began to wonder how many people were just repeating cant. Surely there must be something wrong when there is such a uniform chorus of praise. But no she persuaded me her witnesses meant it.

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The “prologue” where Rioux claims this is a book women share with their daughters just invites an autobiographical response so I’ll oblige again: yes Little Women is a book I shared with my daughters, and both read it. Laura went on to further Alcott and it turned out preferred Little Men mightily, identified with Dan (ever getting into trouble), but it was not given me by my mother as a book she cherished. She never read it, but gave it to me as an appropriate gift-looking book for an 11 year old girl; I went on to read Little Men, Jo’s Boys, Eight Cousins, but began to balk at Rose in Bloom. Laura (at age 15) and I also shared Gone with the Wind, while Izzy took up Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey, and Persuasion (before she was 13-14). I might as well get Rioux’s other assertion that comes up so quickly about Little Women (and she never quite leaves) over with: I never wanted to be tomboy or a boy; I was a reading girl. I also loved the romance of Prof Bhaer in New York City and when he comes to the March home to become Jo’s beloved partner, a tenderly loving older man seemed so perfect for her maturity. I did not want her to marry Laurie who seemed a boy in comparison, nor did I demand she remain unmarried since she did not seem happy up in her attic writing on alone.

The first part of the book (Chapter 1) offers a biography of Alcott in the context of portraits of her complex family members, their transcendental “high literary” milieu, and because of her father’s inability or refusal to conform to mainstream US norms to be able to make a living, hard poverty, strained physical existences, continuous work outside the home for all the daughters, but Lizzie (=Beth) who withdrew psychologically from what must have been an often silently traumatized scene and died young. As a group of readers, we hauled Bronson Alcott over the coals. Then Rioux recounts the extraordinary early and continual success (the “phenomenon”) of the book, the early editions, the re-printings, the way contemporaries talked of it, the two direct sequels (Little Men, Jo’s Boys), and the illustration history. This prompted several of us to describe the books we had read Little Women in and retell our favorite memories. Also what other children’s books we read: Elsie Dinsmore, What Katy Did. I talked of The Secret Garden and Nancy Drew.


Although of the elegant lady variety, Jessie Wilcox Smith’s pictures are felicitious


Prof Bhaer (Gabriel Byrne) and Jo (here Winona Ryder) have the iconic umbrella moment but I prefer this of them going over her story in the lodging house (1995 Miramax Little Women, directed by Gilliam Armstrong, scripted by Robin Swicord)

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June Allyson as Jo has some very real moments (1949 Mervyn LeRoy, directs — this one includes the girls putting on a play)

The second part of the book, “The Life of a Classic” offers a long chapter (4) on the stage plays and films made from the book from the very first up to the most recent, as well as an opera and Broadway musicals. As someone who has seen many of the films I found her analyses (the text is not soppy memories but genuine film study) enjoyable and accurate. It moved me to know the first stage production began with the words “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” and the performance had to stop to allow the “fervent applause” to finish itself out. She rightly goes on at length about the 1931 film, since it has been so influential and is still watchable; at the same time she’s right to say Katherine Hepburn (who is so paid attention to by critics) postures too much, jars as exaggerated, and we never forget the actress in the role. It was spoofed by Jack Benney as “Miniature Women” or “Small Dames.” The 1949 MGM film (June Allyson as Jo) and the 1995 again rightly take up much space (both genuinely thoughtful productions making of the characters evolving role models for adolescent and young women). I want to put in a good word for the old 1970 many episode BBC serial drama: for all its embarrassment at itself, it is the only film to give time to the later part of the story, Jo’s (Angela Downs) hard experience as the daughter left caring for two parents


Meg (JO Rowbottom) and John Brooke (Marvin Jarvis) were credible as young lovers in the 1970 BBC serial

The filmic artistry of all the films could have been paid more attention to; Rioux is rather interested to discuss whether the films convey the living power and emotions of the book, and both films are problematic: the MGM film is so lavish, the images highly magazine-commercialized, and women’s ambitions given short shrift; Armstrong and Co were so afraid to be seen as feminist, that the film is oddly bookish and stilted, too idealizing, no struggle, no anger, no gender ambiguities, to me recently it felt like a pretty Christmas card.

Of all I’ve seen (and not because it is the most contemporary) I find the BBC 2017 the closest to the spirit and themes of the book, and admire specifically how the women director and writer put Marmee on the scene re-experiencing her daughters raw emotions (as a kind of reflexive framing), and I’ve never seen Beth so empathized with as she tries repeatedly to get herself to come into the Laurence’s house and play on the piano as invited to.. Maya Hawke is not a celebrity so she has not been made a fetish of in the ads but she is pitch perfect as a sort of tomboy, as a girl who wishes she had been born a boy, as someone ambitious for a life outside being sexually a woman. At the movie’s end, we fast forward to see her running her school with Prof Bhaer (Mark Stanley) the one playing with their children.


She is Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman’s daughter — why and how she got the role — as well as good acting, here her face has a convincing hard edge of understanding as she grows older

But the meat or core of Meg Jo Beth Amy — why we should read this one by Rioux and Little Women by Alcott — is in the sixth chapter of this part and the seventh and eighth of the third. Most of the films end in a romantic arch that makes marriage the center of all three living daughters’ lives; when we look at the debates over its meaning and how it has functioned in American and English-speaking and European cultures, we find a very different story. Rioux covers in details how different critics across the 20th century and intelligent readers have discussed the book. It emerges as a deeply feminist (l’ecriture-femme) book which explains and defends young women’s natures, and goals in taking on those of life’s burdens suitable to them. One of the people in our group, Nancy Gluck, directed us to a blog she had written when reading Little Women with others as a feminist classic: A Feminist Book. There are conformist and feminist strands in the text, and Nancy distinguishes her terms carefully to emphasize what is liberating and valuable about this book:

“These are real girls, not models of perfection. Whatever your concept of feminism may be, for me it is the belief that women define their own natures; they are not defined for them by the male half of humanity. If women are entirely noble and good or entirely evil and dangerous, that is a patriarchal construct which separates females from the rest of the human race where everyone is a mixture of good and bad characteristics.

She also has ambition for herself, for her own sake.

“I want to do something splendid before I go into my castle, — something heroic or wonderful, that won’t be forgotten when I’m dead. I don’t know what, but I’m on the watch for it, and mean to astonish you all, some day. I think I shall write books, and get rich and famous: that would suit me, so that is my favorite dream.”

This is important because so often, in stories about girls or biographies of women, their accomplishments are portrayed as done entirely for the sake of others, to fulfill a helper role. Jo does not reject being a helper, but she also wants her own satisfactions and achievements. Within the realities of 19th-century life, Jo gets them. She rejects the suitor she does not love, she leaves home to support herself, she sells her stories, she writes a good book, and, finally, she does marry, but it is an unconventional union which enables her to become the manager of a school.

To me the absolute hallmark of masculinist and (one step further) misogynistic literature is this presentation of women as “noble and good” or “entirely” (or almost entirely) “evil and dangerous.” It so bothers me when I have to listen to exegeses (or just do read) of Poldark where the women lambast Elizabeth as almost entirely malign, ill-meaning, awful, with Demelza as an ideal close to that of Meg, Jo and Amy wrapped into one.

Another member of our group, Judith Cheney, wrote: “I am convinced that the Alcott’s aspirations for her Little Women are ones that young women today might still find helpful guideposts in their growing up out of girlhood years.” This is the chapter where Rioux goes over modern post-texts for Little Women.

Rioux looks at how far feminist and in what ways. She wants to defend the boo from the same modern thoughtful feminist point view that she uses in her Writing for Immortality and against the same wall of indifference by respected critics: a book can be sold widely, paid attention to by enormous numbers of people, made money off of and still not achieve the kind of recognition of (however temporary the earth) immortality (to use her words in the other book). By end she is discussing recent scholarly editions by Elaine Showalter the Library of America which printed the “Jo” trilogy (so to speak) and arguing for regarding all three together, even if the other two are not as central, as Alcott’s masterpieces. I found myself drawn to the sharper criticism: by Patricia Meyer Spaces: it’s a “glorification of altruism” – this would hit at the above as too soft, not telling the hardness of life and the people we must deal with and the money we must have to live. See Jill May’s “Feminism and Children’s Literature: Fitting Little Women into the American Canon,” CEA, 56 (1994):19-27.


This one has her novel, Work, about a young woman who during the civil war works as nurse, seamstress, governess, actress and companion
Alas it lacks Hospital Sketches and perhaps her short masterpiece, “The Brothers,” sometimes titled “Contraband,” which appears to be no longer available for free as a pdf on-line (it was for years, but greed never ceases).

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The first two chapters of Part 3 are rousing — one can get excited and even angry reading them. “A Private Book for Girls: Can Boys read Little Women?” is about the truth that Little Women will not be assigned in junior high to high schools, it is about how endlessly the books chosen in high school for all sexes is either by a man or focused on a boy, or, in the rare cases by a woman, she has a pseudonym, and they are mostly about boys — rare, Hunger Games, it’s about violent aggressive girl. Rioux mounts a convincing demonstration of at the core of this is an insistence on instilling macho male values (one parent catching a boy reading Little Women screamed, someone is making a “faggot” of his son), and refusing to acknowledge the interior life of women counts — and yes this all leads directly to rape culture. There is an attempt to keep LW private again, hidden — women belong in the home where nothing matters. She makes an attempt to show if permitted (not shamed or bullied of this) many boys will like and appreciate Little Women she describes individuals. They have to cope with seeing boys put in the marginal position in the book. A reasonable list of well known men loving Little Women follows — it includes Orwell, who I would not have expected to like LW. The opera composer, Adamo feels that LW is about “balancing our fear of vulnerability with our need for love.” That’s one theme but I doubt the central one.

“Being Someone (Chapter 8) treats Little Women as this educational “courtesy”‘ book (what they used to call these kind of book in the Renaissance). The situation and character types are made to do the work of situations and people analogous to girls’ situations as they are becoming mature. Not little girls, not fully grown (already married) women, but in-between, that time that books apparently still mostly avoid.


There’s been a TV movie and there is even a 25th anniversary Audio reading — on CDS, MP3s, downloads and you can find the audiocassettes too

But there is a problem with using Little Women this way — and it comes down to sex. None of the March girls is attacked sexually, harassed, none of them sexually shamed — I would maintain these are central experiences for all girls — probably then once they were allowed away from chaperons. Fanny Burney and various French women writers of the 18th century show incidents of harassment, mortification and rape.. Madame Roland shows how the aftermath can be as bad as the experience: her mother harrowed her with guilt and put her in a convent for a while and her sex life with a man never recovered: it took her years to marry.  Jenny Diski was raped at 14 and the way she describes this is just so usual. That does not mean she got over it or forgot. The experience shaped the way she behaved thereafter. I was raped at age 12-13 and can vouch for the experience shaping the rest of my life.

Rioux admits that sex is left out and “For girls, maturation has … always been closely tied to sexuality or the loss of purity or innocence.” Girls were preyed upon by masters, bosses, and yes (she omits this) family members. So how can Little Women be a central text? it can’t as despite dealing with other issues admirably (if too upbeat I’d say) it omits sex.

Rioux then deals with a second text whose popularity in the 1990s and continued sales power surprises her: Mary Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia. I read it for the first time in the 1990s and I cried. Had this book been written in the 1960s, given me to read, what a difference in my life it might have made. It is the first book I ever read which tells the truth about girls’ sexual experience in their teens. Rioux dislikes it because it shows girls to be victims. I’ve got news for her: they are. Rioux admits that ours is rape, misogynistic, stereotyping culture but not that Pipher does all she can — by telling the truth so we shall not be alone — about what happens to girls who complain and how they cope. Has Rioux never had such an experience? how about her daughters? her students, have they never written of this? Jo’s time in NYC cannot be a version of college or modern girl working because there is no sexual threat anytime anywhere in any way.

A side issue: I object to the idea in Beth we have an anorexic, or party an anorexic. First off, anorexia is not just a response to sex, to sexual maturation, it’s not just an avoidance though it is that. It is a response to a high pressure culture and family life. Why shouldn’t girls “want out,” as Hilary Mantel has written. Rioux does not know anything for real or fully about anorexia and she treats it and Beth as fundamentally very strange. Well in the book she is – because she is presented as super-religious and since Alcott dare not question that, she can’t make sense of Beth Apparently Louisa did not understand what was going on with Lizzie – it was more than a wasting disease like TB.

I suggest it might have been a hysterical response to living with a man (Bronson Alcott) who insists you drink water and eat bread, wear inadequate clothes, worship God all the time, and a mother who obeyed this nonsense. She was punishing herself because she was taught punishing was good – she needs to read books about the centrality of the family and what goes on in schools to the development of anorexia. I recommend to her and anyone coming to this blog Mara Selvini Palazzoli, Self-Starvation: from Individual to Family Therapy in the treatment of Anorexia Nervosa.  Very bad are the way sports are conducted: coaches humiliate, girls are mocked who are the least bit chubby and not competitive. To ask that this be forbidden is like asking a group American cultural norms to reverse themselves right now. And perhaps Lizzie was autistic – I’ve a hunch Bronson Alcott was – and suffered badly from misunderstanding.


Marmee (Emily Watson) watching over the daughter Beth (Annes Elwy) who cannot bear to go to school

I’d say if you gave a girl Little Women as an adequate educational treatise, you had better back it up by Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia and tell for real what girls experience in adolescence. Rioux is not willing to do this. Is the fundamental conflict of a girls life “how to love and be loved without losing oneself? What ideal world did Rioux grow up in? Girls are pressured into making money, having a career and this presented as easy – Jo has no problem getting a flat, writing away – this is unreal. Add some Naomi Wolf on beauty and Promiscuities and don’t omit Anne Oakley on Subject Women (in colleges, offices). Rioux appears sheltered, an emotional conservative, and disingenuous: only once does she remark that Jo is a comfort to lesbian girls. And then she leaves the remark there. She’s not telling a crucial destructive truth that matters about adolescence and young womanhood for women today.

Her last chapter “Little Women and Girls’ Stories Today” (9) is weak again. We are in the area of popular wide readership and popular literature, and to me it’s no surprise (if a matter of regret) that the genre of serious domestic tale investigating real lives of girls has been replaced for most or many girls by fantasy tales, action adventure dystopias. Genre analysis of fantasy and science fiction as such shows that this is an optimistic genre where good people win out (however good is defined).  Hunger Games is so different from LW I cannot take seriously her allegoresis. Girls are also offered easy reading chick lit and mean girl books.

She then (in effect) forgets she has male readers (or has already forgotten) and moves to TV shows where she finds comparisons: I never saw The Gilmore Girls; after the second episode of Girls I tired of it– it was too much about how dismaying real sex is, and the startle and energy gotten by the expedient of suggesting fellatio and other practices dims quickly (for me at any rate). The girls needle each other towards the end of the series (HBO), and we see how (in Rioux’s own words at the opening of this last chapter) how maturation is seen as “walking the line between being sexy and being taken for a whore.” Until near the end the situations depend on ideas about how privileged girls are sheltered by parents.

Rioux seems to want books for girls growing up which teach companionate marriage and sisterhood as an ideal and “how to connect selflessly with another human being.” She wasn’t so keen on companionate marriage in Writing for Immortality. Maybe she is assuming most girls readers will not go on to be writers, but does that mean the self-sacrificing social life ideal that under-girds modern norms of motherhood are primary makers of a good life? Tertium non est?

Rioux also needs to read Rebecca Traistor’s All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation.. Traister argues mature women have always had long periods alone, not with a man, they just had no way to support themselves, no validation from the culture whatsoever (“redundant”! was the outcry when they came out of their closet in the mid-19th century) and thus live a life an individual person who happens to be a woman might want.

Ellen

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Friends,

This eloquent and persuasive study of four women writers’ work: — Elizabeth Stoddard, Louisa May Alcott, Constance Fennimore Woolson, and Elizabeth Stuart Phelps — is the fifth of several general books on women who spent long periods of time unmarried that I have been reading towards my project for a collection of essays in a book with the working title: Not an Anomaly. I recently produced an outline for myself, singling out the specific women I’d focus on over three chapters (widow, pariah, spinster). See At the Crossroads of this life (scroll down). One of my choices will be Constance Fennimore Woolson, (lesbian?) spinster about whom I’ve written here before: Hours of Good Reading: a 19th century woman of letters.


A drawing by Constance Fennimore Woolson

The unusual argument in the introduction (and throughout) is this: Just about all women who wrote about artists or women making money until the 20th century do not themselves say they are ambitious for power or fame (Stael is an exception), or they take their art seriously and want to be respected as artists: no, they are writing for money, they are writing because they have to, they have a family they must help support. Rioux argues that these four women by telling stories of women who aspired to make permanent remarkable works of art, genius, are breaking an important taboo and behaving in a radical way: affirming the value of a woman’s life for what she as an individual can create, for what she can experience as an individual and convey, for having gifts equal to or superior to men.

Rioux insists that it is important to understand this presentation of one’s book as primarily there as a great art, great vision and the real goal of the woman as creating great art (not for supporting herself) as radical and important in building esteem and validation for women as a group. We are so used to valuing things for the money, book history as turned into a branch of let’s study how capitalism, fame, and industry worked and the idea of writing as a vocation becomes something we scorn people for: what? they must be hypocrites and just say that because their books don’t sell. We are so corrupted to the folds of our minds — today unless a book wins a prize, becomes social capital for the writer, we doubt it can be any good. We see up a relationship between a book and money as the first and foremost measurement of value. So this is quite a radical book. Vocational behavior is what we find at the core of great writers and Rioux finds it among her subjects.

The book then divides into four long chapters: first, we learn how the four women when young discovered themselves to be artists, to have singular talents and conceived a desire to fulfill them in family contexts where it seemed this desire could be realized; we read how they expressed this. Aspiration towards high ideals and values is found in the works of these four women and those who encouraged them — Margaret Fuller comes in here. In the second chapter we see them experience adult and later mature life as what thwarts them, and presents obstacles they sometimes overcome but usually not wholly and sometimes not at all, and we read the stories of women artists they tell which narrate such experiences in particular ways. They are all to some extent crippled in their ambition or fame or even what they were able to achieve or write because of the demand they be conventional heterosexual and marry. One of them did: Stoddard and that stopped her producing any more than two good novels.


Elizabeth Stoddard — The Morgesons

Stoddard’s work combines the narrative style of the popular nineteenth-century male-centered bildungsroman with the conventions of women’s romantic fiction in this revolutionary exploration of the conflict between a woman’s instinct, passion, and will, and the social taboos, family allegiances, and traditional New England restraint that inhibit her. Her most studied work, The Morgesons is set in a small seaport town, and is the dramatic story of Cassandra Morgeson’s fight against social and religious norms in a quest for sexual, spiritual, and economic autonomy. An indomitable heroine, Cassandra not only achieves an equal and complete love with her husband and ownership of her family’s property, but also masters the skills and accomplishments expected of women. Counterpointed with the stultified lives of her aunt, mother, and sister, Cassandra’s success is a striking and radical affirmation of women’s power to shape their own destinies. Embodying the convergence of the melodrama and sexual undercurrents of gothic romance and Victorian social realism. But to read Rioux’s very inward account of Stoddard her writing shows intense doubts about herself and the value of what she wrote; Rioux says she stopped writing well before she had to, defeated as it were by her household duties -1866 when she died in 1902; a story she tells after she stopped writing, “Collected by a Valetudinarian” is about Alicia Raymond who keeps a diary, she is a woman of genius and finds herself isolated, lonely, finding no understanding; she refuses a suitor whom she says had the best of her, and slowly dies as her brother marries; her works are forgotten.

The others fought and produced and led a life they found satisfactory but to do so took tremendous energies which weakened them in other ways. I’d say this is even true of Alcott — fine as her achievement in children’s books is and here and there in adult fiction, it’s not what she could have done.

The second woman, Elizabeth Phelps (Ward) spent a good deal of her life unmarried but she finally did marry (a man 17 years younger than herself) and was prolific; in the wikipedia article we are told of 57 volumes, that she depicted women suceeding in non-traditional careers (physician, minister, artist) and like Frances Power Cobbe, wrote polemics against vivisection and on behalf of animal rights. But her novel, The Story of Avis (is about a woman whose talent is extinguished because she finds that supporting herself and her child and writing are by no means satisfying; she is said to have two inward natures, she feels it goes against women’s nature to become a great artist and her life leaves no room for it; she does have a daughter and the daughter it seems will have a career. In life Phelps had a mother Elizabeth Wooster Phelps, who wrote about the repressive lives of women; her career as a writer was cut short when she became a prominent minister’s wife; apparently the mother became ill, mentally and physically with this attempt to break out. The mother’s one short story, “The Angel Over the Right Shoulder”, illustrates the repressive burdens frustrating a wife’s creative ambitions and need to “cultivate her own mind and heart”. The story is notable as “one of the rare woman’s fictions of this time to recognize the phenomenon of domestic schizophrenia”, says literary critic Nina Baym. What her mothr is famous for is a book that sold widely, The Sunny Side; or, The Country Minister’s Wife. The novel sold 100,000 copies in its first year, eventually more than 500,000, and garnered international recognition. She died the next year and the daughter Phelps Ward said her mother died of this struggle.

The central enemies of promise are what allured women and did give them happiness: to marry and have children. So these are hard complex conflicts we read about.

In a third chapter Rioux goes over carefully stories they told as they imagined women artists creating art and their lives. In these stories we find women who do not married (and have children) are regarded as unfulfilled failures no matter what books they write. Her book is dismissed as irrelevant and besides the point of her existence – while it’s what the heroine wants to pour all her existence into. So the question becomes how can one combine the two sets of activities, two different roles. I thought of how Gaskell’s Life of Bronte is really an apology for the woman artist and that while Gaskell was determined to normalize Bronte and her family, and show Charlotte involving herself in what was considered suitable for women, she still presented Bronte’s father (and I think rightly) as domineering, her marriage as simply getting in the way, isolating her, and destroying Bronte in childbirth. Phelps by the way allowed herself “aspiration” but not ambition, saw deeper satisfaction in love relationships for women than writing. I also omitted how another escape route from the conflict of career and personal artistic fulfillment and what their life circumstances demanded and what everyone around them probably said was to choose a male narrator at the center. Emma Lazarus had male artist figures at the center of her fictions. Another ploy was to have a maternal narrator – a mother figure. I don’t mind the mother figure or stance but know I prefer the daughter one. I know I often find very frustrating (even angering) the choice of a male in the center. That’s why I’ve not read DuMaurier’s later novels. To me it seems a betrayal. Somehow using the disguise of a male in Wolf Hall made me accept Mantel’s use of the ploy — this earlier era (unless you have a time-traveling heroine, pro-active from the 20th century) precludes active heroines.


Louisa May Alcott

Alcott as we all know strove to be a “dutiful daughter” and that is the phrase used here — it’s echoed in Beauvoir. Alcott wrote a novel she never finished Diana and Persis, which mirrors what happened to her and her sister May. May went to live in Europe, helped to get there by Louisa, and then lived a satisfying life (like Amy, except as an artist) but Louisa had to return home. In the novel Persis (May) at first has this satisfying life as both mother and artist, but soon she stops painting because she has had a child, and in an outburst (like Romney) it emerges despite her husband’s encouragement of her and saying if a woman will have courage and strength she can both, he berates her over her choice of her child when the child almost dies. It is a wish fulfillment book in that Diana (Louisa) becomes a sculptor, falls in love sort of with another (male) sculptor, Stafford, finds how wonderful it is to have this support, and then the novel breaks off. Rioux discusses her Hospital Sketches and Moods too. Rioux’s own Meg Jo Beth Amy, a kind of biography of a book is the one to read here.

Of the four Rioux concentrates on Woolson is the woman most pessimistic about this combination: Woolson’s register intense grief — as in “Miss Grief.” Woolson derided woman’s books which were “pretty and pleasant’ (idealized) romances, and writes about writing a story about a woman artist, Mrs B, that she never wrote out but the idea is she seeks to compete with men; Woolson has a male writer who realizes he cannot compete with the “power of a woman’s gifts of the heart” and a woman artist who feels she lacks the culture, learning, intellect of a man — this seems to mirror her idea of herself and Henry James. Alas she is best know for her relationship with James; late in life she went to live in Europe and didn’t return to the US, and apparently (I do think this is the truth) killed herself. Did she jump out a window or fall? Rioux stays on the fence but I feel thought she did kill herself. Woolson appears to have been bisexual.


Constance Fennimore Woolston

Grief is also central to these women artists; they grieve that they cannot come up to what men are granted as having achieved; they feel only unhappy women take to writing, they cannot sustain the achievement and eventually they die, killed by neglect, by exhaustion, live lives of quiet desperation. A less common theme (in both Woolson and Stoddard) is the need for women to have a belief in their own powers. She feels that their poses (however grating) could and maybe should be see as them finding authorial identities with which they are comfortable. Many of their heroines (or enough) really do aspire to be great artists, and they manage in different ways to circumvent the impasse they are confronted with by their culture, and how pessimistic they are, we see that in fact they had much success and real careers

Alcott seems single minded in her avoidance of courtship for herself, and intense grief in her novels. She was not unwilling to write uplifting girls’ stories. Phelps and Alcott openly advocate the single life — George Eliot could get away with the best of all worlds (she avoided time-wasting visitors is how I’d see it) because she had Lewes as her businessman. (Not mentioned by Rioux but Margaret Oliphant was envious and found that having to cope with the business end of her profession and support herself and family decreased her time and ability to produce the masterpieces she actually yearned to create. In Rioux’s re-telling, Stoddard emerges as the most poignant figure, for after her serious masterpiece, The Morgesons, still in print, the pressure of marriage and childre made her give up writing.


Mary Cassatt — Lydia at the Tapestry Loom (1881)

It’s not a story of what was not achieved though but of eloquent poems and life-writing, of great books, fascinating heroines and their stories, moving life achievements which at first gain an audience and respect or now and again gain these as if for the first time, but finally are placed in unknown and isolated limbos of neglect and disparagement, or just not valued for real. It’s a story of heroic struggle, of almost making it or making it for a while and then being stifled. I enjoyed reading the summaries and analyses of their books; Rioux makes these come alive with issues that women today who aspired to writing as a career (or any career) will face. I found myself indignant at the way particular editors and male writers and critics put these women down, refused to acknowledge their value, made fun of them, heaped withering scorn and resentment on them, would never give them equal respect — from Howells, Hawthorne and James to lesser known men (but powerful at the time) and the treatment the men and family members the women lived with did not sympathize, understand, and corroded their abilities. What differentiates American from English women was when in Europe they had the sense of being perpetually watched — paradoxically, the idea found in Henry James’s Daisy Miller, led to journalists and ordinary people in letters trying to watch and write about American women writers to see if they led moral as well as successful lives

Along the way Rioux brings in other women writers, especially those whose works did achieve longer lasting fame and recognition at least as first, as influential on our four. Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh, a narrative poem about a woman trying to live the life of a woman writer. Phelps is quoted saying of Aurora Leigh: “I owe to her, distinctly, the first visible aspiration (ambition is too low a word) to do some honest, hard work of my own in the world beautiful, and for it.” Germane de Stael’s Corinne, or Italy, a tragic novel of a woman whose muse creates this beautiful poetic book, at the end of which she is rejected as a woman and artist. She also treats of Eliot’s Armgart, a poem about a singer I have read, a narrative novel where by the end the heroine loses her voice. This is so common in 19th century novels for women artists — it’s a punishment (like the scenes of confession and humiliation for heroines in many American movies still today). There is a typology of writing or artist heroines in the novels of this era: in the US a sentimental artist heroine who can and does marry and we see her troubles; in the UK and Europe, the woman of Romantic poetic genius, who most of the time comes to a tragic end. They also turned to real women they knew or knew of: Charlotte Bronte as presented in Elizabeth Gaskell’s life of her; George Eliot as the model they all yearned to be as novelists. There are explicit intersections Phelps’s novel, The Story of Avis by Phelps and both Corinne and Aurora Leigh – Avis, who becomes an artist is engulfed by her husband and her gifts lost. Phelps does not think that the conflict is a society-imposed one but inherent in women’s nature — she also refuses to give her heroine genuine ambition.


Emma Lazarus

Rioux also (or along the way) discusses Rebecca Harding Davies, Helen Hunt Jackson, Emma Lazarus, one black woman who was never enslaved and lived a middle class life, Charlotte Forten Grimke, as women who either wrote less, or what they wrote did not achieve the same level, or who did not deal openly with the issues of their own lives and those of women from a woman’s point of view, but whose work placed in the same context emerges as similarly unfairly marginalized. She excludes Sarah Orne Jewett and Emily Dickinson because they did not seek careers and in a sense validated the idea that women should stay in some private retreat.

The last chapter is a convincing demonstration that the male white academy of the 20th century excluded all but white males like themselves in a canon they invented and taught; that the four were similarly dissed in the marketplace, pushed into writing less aspirant books (children’s books for example) and how they never were able to reach the status and receive the recognition their work deserved. One must admit an oddity here: these four women did write prolifically, all were in print and had careers, one now still famous, Alcott, and one now still respected for her artistry, if not well known (Woolson) and one respected as achieving something beyond a historically important still readable book (Phelps). Still, this is the saddest chapter of the book. I found myself embarrassed as I read: Rioux is showing that these women chased after males; they wanted recognition so badly, that they kowtowed before them, behaved in deferrent and self-humiliating ways. I know I have done this and wish I could altogether stop. What really hurts is the situation described in the early and mid-20th century history of the Atlantic Monthly obtains today. Yes the women’s page and their normative heroines are different from mid-century but underlying it all is the same non-valuing of literature by and for women. Maybe it’s that I’ve experienced editors “losing” the attachment, never writing back. The part of the chapter about how critics treat women’s books rings loud still. It’s a masculinization of taste.

Rioux’s last topic is the canon. Brigid Brophy was a breath of fresh air, among the first of the 1970s feminist books on women writers. Brophy’s contribution was to agree these are “dreadful” books and because they are dreadful they are masterpieces. She turns the charge of sentimentalism on its head — the sentimentalism is what makes them great – they are morbid, complaining, sad, emotional, say things matter that in life “adults”‘ learn (so it’s implied) to get past, slide over, ignore. In short, they are powerful great grapplings with life in art. Rioux returns to her four women in the end and tells of their later years — betrayed by “new” women replacing them, so Edith Wharton never acknowledged their real influence on her work. Then a marvelous bibliographical essay, which takes the reader through the important cited books a history of feminist scholarship in the last quarter century.


An early important book, which meant a lot to me when I was young

Rioux’s book is so rich in details, in retellings of stories by so many American women writers, of the circumstances of their lives, in quotation (how shocked women were when they sought the vote and discovered males were violently hostile … ), I can’t begin to do justice to it. Read it yourself, and then do like me, turn to read at least some of the literature Rioux has digested for us. I’ve also got myself a good biography of Alcott as a reformist, written in an intriguing way: Kit Bakke, Miss Alcott’s Email: Yours for reforms of all Kinds.

Ellen

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Abbreviated subtitle in Italian translates as Youth


Abbreviated subtitle in Italian translates as Middle Time

Friends and readers,

It’s been five months since I wrote my second blog on Elena Ferrante’s work: in February I wrote about the issue of her choice to remain anonymous (now pseudonymous), a few of her novellas, her supposed child’s picture book, and the first of her quartet of Neapolitan novels, My Brilliant Friend, and the 8 part film adaptation of the book that was shown on HBO. Its abbreviated three subtitles translate into Prologue, Childhood and Adolescence. (My first blog was me being stunned by her Days of Abandonment, about which beyond what I could get from the book itself I knew nothing at all.) Since then I’ve read the second and third volume of this quartet as I think the whole group are intended as a retelling of the life of a woman in a fascist European society for and about woman by a compelling truth-telling self-consciously female novelist of our era.

One of the ways this is mainsteamed book and has been able to capture a large audience as Ferrante’s powerful novellas have not: like Sense and Sensibility, where the point of view is Elinor’s and Marianne is the one we watch, so here the point of view is Lenu remembering and so everything is softened, seen from afar or guessed at based on these notebooks that Lenu has dropped in the river. In the second and middle book Lenu (rightly for safety and some fulfillment of her gifts) buys into the same middle class life Nino manages to establish a better place in (on his own right, not through marriage). This also has the effect of not having to show us the pain, humiliation, difficulty that Lenu too has with her manners, lack of clothes, who she has to kowtow to. The earlier novels gave us Lila’s kind of experience raw and angry or nightmarish; or (The Il figlia oscura, the Lost Daughter), a quiet interlude of a Lenu kind of character at the beach contemplating the fraught experience from afar but only talking of what is happening now — as she steals a doll say, or marks papers. Imagine Sense and Sensibility from Marianne’s point of view. That is Ferrante’s novellas. Ferrante permitted herself to write an introduction to an edition of Sense and Sensibility, so important is this book to her; so too, apparently, Alcott’s Little Women.


From an add for the film adaptation of My Brilliant Friend


A still from Andrew Davies’s Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility: he has framed the talk so that we concentrate on Elinor’s taking in of what Marianne has to say; Austen’s book and all the films are from Elinor’s POV

***********************************

The Story of a New Name begins and ends in medias res. My Brilliant Friend ended with Lila’s wedding, and Stefano’s first betrayal of some promises he made to her. The storyline itself begins with their “honeymoon” where we get as graphic and disillusioned an account of forced graphic sex (Stefano continually beats Lila who appears to dislike sex — justifiably) as I’ve ever read. Lenu (Elena Greco) has dropped out of school so confused and frightened is she by how she is treated at Lila’s wedding, her mother’s behavior to her, what she doesn’t see as the result of hard study, and only gradually is she being brought back to study by Lila who buys her books (Lenu’s parents have no money for books or clothes for her, or even a private space) and gives Lenu a room of her own to study in within the elegant large apartment Lila has to live in as Stefano’s wife. Then Lenu attracts a mentor while Lila begins to thrive as a businesswoman for the Caracci and Solari groceries and shoestores: both displease their relatives, Lenu for seemingly doing nothing that will lead to money or the world’s respect, Lila for not getting pregnant and then having miscarriages (she is 17).

Lila is taken to a modern doctor and oh did this resonate with me. Room filled with customers, everyone in awe of this man. From Lila’s point of view, he gets to invade her with his metal instruments. She feels violated. And he says (I have heard a male doctor say this of me after examining me): “it’s all there” in this satisfied voice. I don’t know why I didn’t report him to Kaiser, but suspect it was because he was a black doctor (I’m really honest here) and was worried I wouldn’t be believed and be thought racist. There you go. But after that I never went to any male gynecologist ever. When I was 16 I was taken to just such a prestigious place and was violated similarly — or felt so. And given this “down from the throne advice” in this disdainful manner. I think the same things go on today in the US – clearly they go on in Italy. I never went to a male gynecologist in the British national health but remember the woman I got contraception from also treated me with a lack of respect because at the time I was not married.

This is the youth of these young women. What stands out? All sorts of passionate incidents where the underlying values of the society are exposed in the most raw ways. Early in Lila’s married life how important are having expensive things and much money. The acceptance of the infliction of violence upon women by men in the women’s families. I was struck by how Lila ignorantly insists on going to a party with Lenu to which Lenu’s mentor has invited Lenu and Lila doesn’t realize until afterwards how she cannot and never will fit in again. How I bonded with her.

Before going, Lenu becomes intensely anxious over — in just the ways I would. What shall I wear? she has no money either. How shall I appear? what say? her problem is not solved by Lila offering to come with her. Lila does dress right (blouse and skirt, nice ones with heels) but does not at all fit in. It’s a devastating lesson for Lila which we see only from the outside. Lenu fits in because she is known for her good work and people talk to her of it (like I remember people talking to me of my blogs). On the way home Lila is malicious and does all she can to hurt Lenu: we have seen Lila walks around with bruises from that husband of hers, who himself had hoped to be let in. How they have no idea.

While there Lenu learns that Nino is being published in much more prestigious journals than her mentor: this is the kind of thing that now passes Lila by. The title of the book points us to how the story line of the book is the depiction of the life of Lila (Raffaella Cerullo) as long as she stays married to Stefano Carracci.

The storyline has them then both going to Ischia, because the doctor recommended rest and relaxation — but with Lila’s mother, Nunzia, as chaperon and guard-dog and sister-in-law, Pinuccia Caracci who has married Lila’s brother, Rino, and become spiteful under his mistreatment of her and Lenu as Lila’s paid servant. It is there the two girls re-meet Nino and fall in love with him. Lila and Pinuccia are utterly subject to their husband’s weekend visits (sex is demanded continually when the men want it).

About 3/4s the way through the novel Lila does the astonishingly brave act of leaving Stefano in the early stages of an ecstatic love affair with Nino Sarratore; he tires quickly of her, partly based on her working class manners which will prevent him from going on with his middle class academic-writer career, and she is rescued from destitution first by the faithful Pasquale Peluso (now a construction worker and communist), and then (becoming his live-in but not sex partner) Enzo Scanno (a peddlar of fruit and vegetables who under Lila’s influence studies mathematics, engineering, computer science. She has had a baby and believes it to be Nino’s — who takes no interest whatsoever in this boy. She lives in squalor because Enzo and Pasquale make very little money. All three become involved in violent working class politics against the fascist regime.

At the same time interwoven in by Lenu (Elena Greco) as the central narrator, is Lenu’s life as college student, her very hard work, and then (having been noticed and picked up by an important female mentor, a professor Galiani), first experience as a published novelist, and political journalist (very briefly). It seems that in this era it is very difficult for any woman to sustain a money-paying position in university. Both girls have by the end of the novel had at least two lovers — Lenu moves from an engagement with a neighborhood working class boy, Antonio, to a potentially high academic, Franco Mario. Lenu has learned the manners of the middling to upper class and has been betrayed by Nino twice: after he stood up for her novel at the close of My Brilliant Friend, he again thwarts her publication in one of the journals he writes for; he choses Lila over her without letting her know this until Lila exposes everything by flight; meanwhile he has gotten another girl pregnant and ignored girl and child. By the end of the book Lenu has become bethrothed to a male academic student, Pietro Airota, whose family connections, especially his mother, Adele, just about guarantee him a lucrative career in university. he is a kindly unaggressive man attracted to her body and mind.

The framing of this book must not be left out. My Brilliant Friend began with the disappearance of the 66 year old Lila. The Story of a New Name begins with Lila again near present time (in her sixties), who we are told is no longer close to Lenu, giving Lenu a large metal box with 8 — need I say precious – notebooks of her life story in it. Fat important unrepeatable diaries. After reading them, Lenu dumps them in a river. I had to stand up, walk about and then sit down for a while before I could take that cruel an act in. Since Alcott’s Little Women is again alluded to in this book let e say I thought about thow Jo could recreate a novel after Amy destroyed the manuscript. No one can re-create 8 volumes of daily & nightly record-keeping. Towards the end of the book Lenu recurs to this diary and says the suddenly inserted narrative she has of Lila’s life with Stefano after she went back to him briefly after Nino left her and now her life with Enzo comes from there. I should say the book is crudely put together at times.

I like this part where we learn of her studying, her trying to pass exams, finally the books she read, one young man she gets involved with and they fuck. But she says that she and Lila somehow came together in the old intense way and now she must tell of how wrong she was about what was going on. We are told how she surprised people by bringing together unexpected books, themes, characters, What is not surprising is Lila carries on with a torrid mad affair with Nino — reminding me of the 18th century Paul and Virginie only this time there is a husband. But in her notebooks (which we know after the first sequence Lenu unforgivably has dumped into the sea) what Lila exulted in was not so much the sex as what they read and talked about

Nor should I omit the art — or lack of it. Ferrante’s book is not polished and smooth, and unlike say Austen (whom Ferrante appears to admire and regard as a predecessor) Ferrante does not try to imitate the passing of time so as to give us a sense of long time for years passing and short time for quick events; she will leap suddenly forward and then turn back to tell what she had not brought in before. The Italian itself is far more demotic than the register for elegant concise English Ann Goldstein uses. At the same time unlike My Brilliant Friend where very few of the characters become alive and distinctive beyond our two heroines, by the end of this novel all the major players in Lenu and Lila’s life have become complex living presences.

Unexpectedly Nunzia is one of these. She emerges for the first time as a woman with a brain and a heart. She hardly ever leaves the house — so shy — but she loves being there and does walk out to the beach. She says how Lila should have gone to school and be going now but they hadn’t the money and her husband wouldn’t hear of it. She says they are far too young to be married. She likes Lenu — but we know were she alerted to what’s really happening on the island of Ischia (Nino’s affair with Lila, his pretended love for Lenu, and Pinuccia’s having an affair with Nino’s friend, Bruno), Nunzia would tell their husbands (paradoxically out of fear she backs the patriarchy that has destroyed her life’s chances, become the girls’ enemy.

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The irony of the title, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay is there is no leaving. Don’t kid yourself. You cannot escape the all encompassing mindset filth of the corrupt deteriorating world of 21st century Italy.

As the third novel of the quartet opens, Lila and Lenu are walking through the old neighborhood together. Lila is now living in her parents’ old apartment with her son, for now clearly identified as Nino’s. So her child has not a moron for a parent. Lenu is about to married to Pietro Airota, his mother Adele, has become her mentor, but because she did not go to the right university, she has a lower level teaching job and until she marries lives with her parents – not enough money. Lila has lost whatever conventional beauty she had, her thin hair is white, her face lined from exhaustion and worry, she is bitter. Lenu fights fat. As they walk they come across a horrifying corpse, it’s the remains of a suicide, one of the girls familiar from the previous novel, her face and body ruined, her mind devastated — it reminds me of Troubled Love, which is about the suicide of the heroine’s mother and the heroine’s attempt to cope with burying her.

We gradually move back to the scene we left off at where Nino had stood defending Lenu’s book, and now Ferrante makes this believable because she adds all the nasty politics of real university life. I have not read such a raw depiction of this milieu and from a lower class woman’s point of view (fringe person) before. I find such writing down of truth exhilarating. She includes the perniciousness of fights over theory (sexual and class oriented). She’s very good at how the language is used to exclude and protect, intimidate anyone not using it as inferior (stupid). Lila has not gotten to the first base to understand quite how she is shut out and why — or even that to help Enzo it is not enough that he should understand skills and content.

After Lenu dramatizes her fiancee’s meeting with her parent and his parents with hers, we see that Pietro is a man with considerable social gifts; I begin to get nervous because nonetheless the wedding is put off again; now his mother insists on using her influenced to get them a lovely apartment inexpensively in the part of Florence where high cultural people reside and an interesting life may be had. I fear Lenu will not marry him. Then we switch to Lila whose tragic hard story — not that she sees it quite that way — Lenu feels we must know — it’s happening at the same time

What I want to report is both girls are often sexually harassed. We get so many casual scenes of these male academics, old and younger, trying to get into bed or use Lenu. It rings so true. Similary in the horrible sausage factory Lila is assailed by the boss and others. Lila tries to soothe Enzo and Pasquale Peluso (who remains with her in effect as a loving friend) by saying she fends them off or they have stopped. But it’s not so. The book is so true to life — yet I want to say that for myself after my wretched teenagehood, when I went out to work by then married to Jim I was never so assailed. I’d catch a male looking at me, but no approach. I begin to wonder if I was ugly — or, what I do think, is I was so traumatized by what had happened to me as a teenager that I let off signals to the males in these universities, offices &c that this is the last thing in the world I’d want.

The narrative has switched to tell Lila’s story from her point of view as if we had an omniscient narrator — but we don’t. This is part of the book’s rawness. Lila’s life has become unbearably desolating: from the hard wretched work in the factory, the terrible conditions, how she right away understands that when she feeds information to the union, they have no idea how to act effectively. Her relationship with Enzo is troubled: he cannot understand that she wants no sex with anyone. When the book opens she is neglected looking,here we felt that she has developed a murmur in her heart so stressful is her inward existence …

Suddenly (as I wrote) Ferrante switches back to Lenu living with Pietro. In spurts going back and forth, she marries him and says she remembers nothing. So we get no description. In a couple of paragraphs she has a baby girl and insists on breast-feeding at first it goes well but quickly the child is biting, wailing and both just miserable. The mother-in-law moves in but Lenu remains fixated, she does not clean of keep the house. Her writing degenerates, no spirit in it. Ferrante is exploring motherhood again and trying to show how a mother can seem a monster but can’t get herself quite to pull this off clearly and sophisticatedly.

Lenu’s younger sister goes to live with Marcello Solaro, much older than she, a thug, fascist, and there has been no marriage. Lenu rushes with family and husband back to Naples to try to stop this relationship and finds she cannot. She is treated with envy and a sense of alienation and a false respect as is her husband. She has tried to have real communication with Lila but Lila remains at a distance, half mocking and we learn that along with her great prowess as a programmer she has something to do with the people who run around shooting politicians — from the side of the radical left.

I am puzzled with Lenu she is treated — there is so little respect with such a pretense of respect. She is forced into visiting her sister, and then finds a party set up and an insistence she and her husband and her children stay with the sister instead of escaping to a hotel.

Lila’s part of the novel (also Pasquale) are a series of newspaper reports (in effect) of who murdered who, who destroyed whose legs, face, business.

The last quarter: “life goes on.” The details told about Lenu’s life especially mirror those we find as central to the lives of her heroines in other of her novels. In The Lost Daughter, the woman who has left her husband, gotten a job teaching (in a college of some sort) has had two daughters who sided with the father. Lenu now has two daughters: Adele and Elsa, and she has not been getting along with Pietro for all sorts of reasons for quite some time. At one point Again Lila unloads her son, now called Gennaro, on Lenu one summer and Lenu is really expected to take this child on because Lila is busy with her spectacular managing and pre-computerizing of companies. Lenu does balk and finally send the boy back (he is a Stefano) but she is breaking an understood demand

Just about all the characters who came alive at the end of the second volume are part of her story and there is a frightening acknowledged class war going on with people who are socialists murdering the fascists after the fascists have murdered or imprisoned them. Pasquale and Nadia (Galiani’s daughter) are part of this. So too Lila is a participant on the side. Grim horrible working conditions and poverty are part of this.

In the last part Nino insinuates himself into the home of Pietro and Lenu, and after first seducing Pietro to become a best friend, Nino insults and alienates him, and simply takes Lenu as a lover. Against the anger, will power, hurt of Eleanora, Nino’s dull uneducated but rich wife, Nino is leaving with Elena. She just drops, or abandons her two daughters; by leaving Pietro in this way Elena’s publications (the product of Pietro’s mother’s influence, and the influence of his sister) are in danger. Nino too is casting aside many of his relationships that he needs as a successful professor.

At first I felt that wrongly Ferrante was on the side of Lenu as striking out for whatever gives her joy, leads her to write. She has long been bored by Pietro, but the parallel with what Nino did to Lila at the opening of the book is so explicit. We are told Lenu and Nino especially are dazzled by this mad relationship of frantic love making; he is leading her into the same act as he led Lila, but we know he left Lila one month later.. Said he couldn’t stand her or it, and many years later bad mouthed Lila to the point of scorning her way of giving herself sexually to him. He is promiscuous; cared nothing for Gennaro (turned out he is Stefano’s son but that’s not why Nino didn’t care); he has another son he pays no attention to. A page before the end Lila calls to tell of yet more political murders and when Lenu tells Lila what she is going to do Lila vehemently reproaches her for leaving her good husband, home, educational position. Has she learned nothing from what Nino did to Lila (she was rescued by Pasquale and Enzo from the brutality of Stefano)?

For myself I found Lenu’s behavior to Pietro ugly and so utterly selfish — so he seems dull and cautious; she uses him and abuses him emotionally. She grows angry at him when he will not countenance students who are violent revolutionaries and wants to turn them over to police. Ferrante leaves tones and nuances that suggest the stance towards Lenu’s behavior she expects Is Lenu is utterly unfair to her husband here. His mother and sister are also doing all they can at this juncture to publish a third book she has written. Will they carry on?

Lenu is also deserting her daughters – in the earlier novella, The lost daughter, there are two daughters and one like Dede (Lenu’s older daughter) who sides with Pietro though longs for her mother to stay. Lenu goes on about how she is now leaving, not staying but in fact she is repeating the ruthless behavior of everyone around her. The third book ends in the maddened muddle the second book ended with, only this time it’s Lenu fleeing with Nino, who we now is not worth it. His father was a better man in many ways: he stayed with his wife, supported his family well, took them on holidays to Ischia.

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Victoria Crowe, November Window (a 21st century woman artist)

Last thoughts for now:

The Lila story suffers from continual spectacular idealization: we are really expected to believe she at home conquers pre-computer machines and teaches Enzo to and they are offered super-high salaries to make whole companies efficient. I just don’t believe it. Ferrante has persisted in this idea that this girl is a genius and can do anything if she sets her mind to it — only lacks upper class manners, ways, and an academic style. Lila for example liked the second novel or appeared to but hadn’t the language to say why (or so she said).

Concrete circumstances are significant. Lenu does not get a job teaching at a university. I am startled by this as Professor Galiani is a woman — so women taught in upper level schools. It could be that in the 1960s or 70s women were still very rare in universities but Lenu does not say this. Her husband has a high position as a professor in Florence. Instead her choices are stay home and immerse herself in domesticity or get her mother or mother-in-law to do this while she writes a book or articles for magazines. It seems almost common, nothing out of the ordinary for these grandmothers to leave their lives and in effect work for Lenu. A third choice is what? none is given beyond that she makes Pietro socialize and becomes the center of a networking academic world as a faculty wife and one book author.

She’s deeply dissatisfied at times by this life but the lurching element makes jumps and sometimes she is satisfied. She writes a second novel which is never published because her mother-in-law detests it as does her husband. It mirrors the radical leftist politics at the time. Is not a romance at all. They say it’s crude and vulgar. She takes the content from stories Lila tells her of what’s happening in Naples and to some of her old friends. Her articles are also rejected — she says they are no good but doesn’t quite say why.

I know by our era there are many or as many women academics as males in Italian universities but my experience has shown me they are usually of very upper class background. Without that you end up a person with a vocation, teaching adult ed, teaching in lower schools, writing for various magazines but rarely without another full time job. There are not enough paid positions in universities in Italy to begin to provide real jobs for a wide range of people teaching. Ferrante may want her story to be universal or of general application but often it is rooted in Italian norms and customs.

The over-all scheme of the three books is to expose to us the horrors of patriarchy and class-inflected capitalism. All the men ruthless, beating their wives, everyone twisted. A fascist society no one gets to leave from – when Lenu went to live in Florence she found herself in a society very like the one she grew up in in Naples; the richer quarters of Naples are not much different in culture and attitude from the poorer.  It is still crude as the use of irony is not clear; there is a lack of proportion in the parts, some ought to be developed slower and others contradictory.


Another cover illustration — the book read aloud on CDs

I can see why the key book remains Alcott’s Little Woman, and also Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (the double heroine), but want also to remark (as part of the general anti-intellectualism of Italian culture in general) that Ferrante is another novelist unwilling to cite other important Italian books and authors. Does she fear being too bookish? And she does not cite her modern predecessors.  Where for example is Elsa Morante? Natalie Ginzsburg? Grazia Deledda? Christa Wolff. I wish she were franker, used her real name. It would be a great help in understanding her books if she could be brave enough to withstand what will probably at first be resentful reproach.

So I end where I began my very first and second blogs: the problem of the author’s stance and identity (as bound together).

Ellen

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